Thai Families Selling their Children to the Sex Trade
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Thai families partners in child sex trade

Mae Sai, Thailand -- When Burmese migrant Ngun Chai sold his 13-year-old daughter into prostitution for $114, his wife, La, had one regret -- they didn't get a good price for her.

"I should have asked for 10,000 baht ($228)," La Chai said. "He robbed us."

She was angry that the agent who bought her eldest child, Saikun, in 1999 took her to Bangkok, some 460 miles away, rather than a nearby city as promised. It did not concern La Chai that Saikun would be forced to have sex with as many as eight men a day.

Ngun Chai earns about $100 a year selling bamboo bowls in the local market and lives in a thatched hut in Pa Tek village on the outskirts of Mae Sai, a bustling town of 80,000 inhabitants on Thailand's northern most border with Burma. Tensions run high between the two nations' armies and occasionally lead to the exchange of gunfire across the muddy waters of the Mae Sai River separating the two nations.

But the occasional violence has done nothing to hinder the town's two main trades -- drugs and daughters.

Though the smuggling of vast quantities of heroin and amphetamines from Burma and China through Thailand has given the region its infamous tag -- the Golden Triangle -- it's the explosion in the recruitment of girls into the lucrative Thai sex industry that has put this border town on the map.

Last December, Mae Sai was high on the agenda at the Second World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Yokohama, Japan, where national governments and child protection agencies met to exchange information and review policies.

There are no reliable statistics on the number of children working in the sex industry worldwide, but the lowest figure cited is 1 million. The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that one-third of sex workers in Southeast Asia are 12 to 17 years of age.

Every year, hundreds of young girls from Mae Sai are spirited away to brothels in Bangkok, where they feed the insatiable appetite of the $20 billion commercial sex industry, according to the International Labor Organization.

"We tend to think of trafficking as involving sophisticated crime organizations, but much of it is really a cottage industry involving small- time profiteers," said Phil Marshall, manager of a U.N. agency in Bangkok that monitors the trafficking of women and children.

The Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities (DEPDC),

a nongovernmental organization in Mae Sai that works with local girls who are at risk of being sold, estimates that of Pa Tek's 800 families, 7 in every 10 have sold at least one daughter into the trade.

With prices varying from $114 to $913 -- the latter figure equal to almost six years' wages for most families -- parental bonds in impoverished households are easily broken. In fact, child prostitution is so established that many brothel agents live in the village, and are often friends or relatives of the family from whom they buy the children.

"Agents will come to the village with orders to fill so people in Bangkok - Thai men and foreigners, mostly Europeans - can order girls like they order pizza," said DEPDC Director Sompop Jantraka. "If they want a girl with thin hips and big breasts, the agents will come up here and find her. They always deliver."

The agents also approach the thousands of girls from Burma, Laos and southern provinces of China who cross the border annually. Many wind up working as prostitutes in Singapore, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and Australia.

But few villages in the region have contributed as many daughters as Pa Tek.

Populated by Burmese immigrants who have crossed the border illegally to escape poverty and persecution by their nation's military leaders, most are allowed by the Thai government to live and work in the border area with no legal status. Many work as agricultural laborers and earn less than $160 a year.

The depths of poverty make the area easy pickings for brothel agents, or "aunties."

Virginity is highly prized. Fueling the demand for young girls is ignorance about HIV-AIDS transmission and myths about the curative powers of virginity.

Some brothel customers - especially those from Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Middle East - believe a child is unable to transmit disease and therefore less risky for sex. In reality, children are physically more prone to bleeding,

infection and disease, said Marshall of the United Nations.

Somporn Khempetch, coordinator of the Child Protection and Rights Center in Mae Sai, said 50 girls in Pa Tek had died last year from AIDS.

Despite the risks, there is no shortage of parents willing to sell their children.

A recent ILO report challenges existing thinking on child prostitution in Asia. The policy is to target sophisticated people-smuggling networks, but the report says the majority of girls who leave their villages to work in the sex trade do so through informal networks, and with the approval and willing participation of their parents.

"We have found that many girls want to leave home and work elsewhere, preferably in cities," said Hans van de Glind, one of the report's authors. "It's not so much a poverty issue because we found that girls from one village would migrate while girls from another, equally poor, wouldn't."

Sompop, of DEPDC, says education is the way to deter girls from going into prostitution. Before the 1997 Thai constitution guaranteed citizens 12 years of free education, the majority of girls leaving Mae Sai for the sex trade were Thai, he says. Now, Thais account for less that 2 percent, according to Sompop.

With fewer Thai girls going into the trade, agents have cast their nets wider to snag the many girls from neighboring countries who cross the bridge over the Mae Sai River into Thailand.

"This is an open border," said Wichai Promsilpa, Mae Sai's police chief. "Thousands of people cross here every day. We cannot tell the difference between a girl coming here to buy eggs and a girl coming to work as a prostitute."

Sompop, however, says prostitution will continue as long as foreigners come looking for cheap sex.

"The border was always easy to get across," he said. "What has changed is the demand for these girls. As long as there are foreign men coming to this country and spending large amounts of money for girls, this trade will flourish."

Meanwhile, DEPDC workers are keeping a close watch on the Chais' beautiful 12-year-old daughter, Nangdee. They worry that brothel agents will dangle the maximum amount for her, but Saikun, the daughter Ngun Chai sold, said, "I never want my sister to work in a brothel."

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